Try as it may and try as it might, Greensboro had a tough time attracting new business in 2016.
Last year, only three new businesses came to Greensboro with any jobs of note. New Jersey-based NFI Industries, a transportation, distribution and warehousing company, brought 60 jobs to the former Kmart distribution center on Penry Road; online home furnishing retailer Wayfair opened a distribution center at McConnell Center industrial park and is adding up to 65 jobs, and Castle Home Furnishings opened a manufacturing facility on Chimney Rock Road with plans to eventually employ up to 200 workers.
As for new business in other parts of Guilford County, TQL, a Cincinnati-based freight-brokerage firm announced it’s opening up shop in High Point creating 70 new jobs. That company, which has over $2 billion in sales annually and is the second largest freight brokerage business in North America, operates 57 offices in 24 states and it had locations in Durham and Charlotte before opening one in High Point. There were also some less publicized successes in High Point: a small wine distribution business, Rickety Bridge Winery, store and a furniture distribution business, Freight Concepts Unlimited – two projects that appear to have created only a handful of new jobs. On the retail side, High Point got a Publix grocery in 2016, the first one of that chain in Guilford County.
Other than that, Greensboro and Guilford County came up empty in terms of new business from outsiders. In 2016, there were some welcome and significant expansions of existing businesses in Guilford County – but nothing else in terms of brand new business blood. And there was certainly no major new marqu3e project that can really put a community on the map for other major companies looking to relocate.
It’s not for lack of trying. Area economic development officials have been wooing site consultants, going to trade shows and air shows and promoting Guilford County as a business-friendly environment where it makes sense to locate. Area officials are also working on a megasite in Randolph County and on expanding available sites at Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA).
In the county’s most publicized economic development move, in 2016, Guilford County and the cities of Greensboro and High Point concentrated their efforts into the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA). That organization, which was signed into existence in November 2015, met for the first time in January 2016.
Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County each put in $100,000 to get the organization started. That means the taxpayers of Greensboro and High Point were taxed twice for the same program – once through their city taxes and once through their county taxes. The residents of the other six municipalities in the county and those of unincorporated Guilford County were only taxed once.
While few new businesses choose to call Greensboro home last year, other parts of North Carolina had some major successes in that area.
Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC) CEO Chris Chung said there were some big wins across the state in 2016.
He said one of the most recent examples of success could be found in Rutherford County, just southwest of Asheville. That county landed Everest Textiles, a Taiwanese textile company.
“That’s a new company making synthetic textiles that is creating over 600 new jobs with $19 million in investment,” Chung said.
He said another recent win, also in the western part in the state, was a GF Linamar aluminum casting plant for the automotive industry that recently brought 350 new jobs to Henderson County. That’s a joint venture between Swiss firm Georg Fischer AG, and Linamar Corp, a Canadian company.
In another notable success, Lending Tree came to Mecklenburg County in 2016 announcing over 300 jobs.
Chung said that some well known areas, such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Wilmington and Ashville, are doing well, and he added that one factor that helps Raleigh and Charlotte is that some of the clients he deals with want to be near a major airport.
“Airports are important,” Chung said, “as is proximity to highways. They’ll also look at available real estate, tax rates, sales tax, wages – how much does it cost me? They will look at the cost of living and the cost of housing.”
According to Chung, a lot of companies prefer to take over vacant buildings rather than build new ones because the infrastructure is already in place and usually the company can get “a real deal” on an empty building.
He said every area in the state wants to pull in the big fish, but there are other ways to grow the economy. For instance, he said, the EDPNC works to increase tourism and to help existing state businesses sell their products to international markets.
But the giant new company is always one goal, he said.
“We all want to bring in a Boeing or a Toyota – and not just for the direct benefit,” he said, adding that those major projects almost always bring a lot of other support businesses and suppliers in their wake.
Chung said the announced projects supported by the EDPNC in 2016 are expected to create 14,944 new jobs in the state – more than the 13,402 new jobs attached to projects supported by the EDPNC in 2015. That’s a 12 percent increase.
It’s common these days to blame a lack of new businesses on House Bill 2 (HB2) – also known as the bathroom bill – which requires men to use the men’s bathroom and women to us the women’s bathroom in government buildings.
Chung said that when he speaks to civic groups he often gets asked about HB2 and its influence on economic development and he tells them that sometimes it has been a factor.
“I think it’s fair to say it has had an impact on the decision making,” he said.
Still, he said, it’s not the major hurdle many believe it is. He said it doesn’t seem to be a consideration most of the time.
“In about 85 percent of the cases, it didn’t come up,” he said of the EDPNC’s talks with prospective clients last year.
He added that, in the other 15 percent of the cases, there was dialogue about the bill but that didn’t mean it was a deal killer. He added that other factors, such as whether there are shovel-ready sites available, play a bigger role.
“Sites exist in different stages of readiness and the further you are along the better,” Chung said.
He said job increases of any size and the advancement of the state’s economy in other ways help. “Every win is important,” Chung said.
Guilford County economic development officials point out that Guilford County, with the aid of GCEDA, did make significant strides this year in terms of expanding job growth through existing businesses.
As of Jan. 1, 2017, High Point Economic Corp. President Loren Hill is the current lead staff person for GCEDA. Hill took over that role from Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Christensen. The two will alternate in that lead role each year, which the change coming on Jan. 1.
Hill said the county had a lot of success with job growth from existing industry last year.
“Most growth comes from expansion locally,” Hill said.
What economic development officials don’t point out – since they are imbued with the spirit of countywide unity – is that High Point was the city that racked up when it comes to the majority of the most notable expansions. Those include call center company Alorica adding 800 new jobs in High Point, Thomas Built Buses added 200 jobs this year in High Point after creating 216 last year, and Heritage Home Group opened up its new headquarters – a move that gave High Point about 300 new jobs. Creative Snacks also announced a new facility with a 100-job expansion of its business in High Point. Those wins come in the wake of a five-year period in which High Point had an impressive run of job growth and business expansions, while Greensboro largely sat on the sidelines.
Even when it comes to retail, the big news in 2016 was that Publix was opening a grocery store in High Point and employing 125 to 150 people. About 18 months ago, High Point started making new retail a priority and the High Point Economic Development Corp. began to look at ways to increase retail in that city in addition to the office and industrial businesses that economic development efforts usually focus on.
At PTIA, HAECO announced 500 new jobs this year, which followed that company’s 147-job announcement last year.
In Greensboro, Qorvo – which is the name of the new company formed when Greensboro’s RF Micro Devices merged TriQuint Semiconductor – added another 100 jobs and announced that its Greensboro location would be its sole corporate headquarters.
Both Hill and Christensen stress that the new unified economic effort led by GCEDA does not favor one area of the county over another. They said that’s the whole point when it comes to presenting a unified front to recruit prospective businesses.
They might not care and Guilford County may not care – since the county gets new tax revenue whether a new business comes to High Point, Greensboro or unincorporated Guilford County – but Greensboro taxpayers may care because industries located outside of Greensboro don’t increase the property tax revenue for the city. More industry would mean the city could collect the same amount of revenue with a lower property tax, which is currently the highest in the state of comparable cities. Of course, that still wouldn’t solve the biggest problem, which is that the Greensboro City Council gives money away at the drop of a hat and nobody is stopping them.
Hill said that expansion of existing business is on par with bringing in new business. He pointed out that aiding business expansion is a prime directive of GCEDA and that the organization worked with area companies in 2016 to assist in their expansion efforts. He also said GCEDA provides companies help in a multitude of ways, whether it’s helping in the permitting process or helping find a suitable piece of real estate.
“It’s whatever they need,” Hill said.
He added that Alorica, which brought 800 jobs to the High Point, was considering expanding here or in another community in the northeastern United States. Company officials met with GCEDA officials and other local leaders on Oct. 5.
Hill wrote in an email that Alorica executive Jacob Kramer sent a picture to the company CEO “to show how – unlike out-of-state communities he had met with that were also under consideration for this expansion – Greensboro-High Point had all the ‘right players’ at that meeting, showing support for the company.”
High Point Mayor Bill Bencini and Greg Demko, High Point’s city manager, where just two of the big economic development backers who were there.
“Mr. Kramer was most impressed that morning, and he wanted photographic proof to show other company officials,” Hill said.
Christensen said this week that, in 2016, GCEDA put its plan together and it has now started acting on that plan. He said that should start to reap benefits.
He said that effort includes, among other things, going to specific trade shows and a new social media push promoting Guilford County.
“It is continuing to get the Greensboro and High Point names out there,” Christensen said.
Like Hill, he said helping businesses expand is a key part of that group’s purpose.
“Let’s definitely not look down our nose at that – job creation is job creation,” Christensen said.
He also said that expansions in an area draw the attention of new businesses.
“It gives them a sense of the local economy,” Christensen said.
Christensen went to Duke University and he used a Duke basketball analogy to make his point. He said Duke always seeks a top-ranked No. 1 recruits like star center Harry Giles. However, he said, the other players are critical to its success and getting them to play better helps the team as well.
He said everyone wants a giant economic development win from a very high profile company, but the other advances are important as well.
“There isn’t a community in this world that doesn’t want a major project to come there,” he said.
Just down I-40, Alamance County – which has a population of about 150,000 compared to Guilford County’s population of over 500,000 – has had some very big announcements of new business in recent years.
Alamance County Area Chamber of Commerce President Mac Williams said he’s been very pleased with that county’s progress.
“We had a great year – we’ve had a great five years,” he said.
Williams said Alamance County had seen 32 new additions and business expansions since 2012, and 12 were from new businesses locating there. He said the 32 projects added up to a total of over $500 million and 2,200 jobs.
Like Chung, Williams said HB2 hadn’t been a big factor.
“I haven’t run into the issue affecting what we’re doing,” Williams said.
He said he thinks Alamance County is strategically located in the state and that has helped its development.
“I think our location is an inherent advantage,” he said, adding that the county is not far from airports in Greensboro and Raleigh. He also said that putting a lot of effort into NC Commerce Park near Mebane had been a good move. The county and other agencies made sure to account for adding new businesses in the future when it provided the park with water and sewer lines, road enhancements and other types of infrastructure.
Williams also said the NC Department of Transportation (DOT) had played a role in that county’s success.
“The DOT has been very responsive to our needs,” he said.
He said that, when a Wal-Mart distribution plant came to Alamance County, area officials decided they should equip the 1,100-acre area for future growth as well, and that created some other successes.
Williams said that, in his experience, the most important draw for attracting companies is having the right piece of real estate available, followed by having the right labor force.
He said incentives help but there are limits.
“Incentives can’t make a bad deal good, but they can make a good deal better,” Williams said.